A More Perfect Union

Rejecting the idea that America is nothing worth celebrating right now.

I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.

Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.

But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.

And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”

When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?

Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.

When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.

Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.

And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.

I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.

Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.

I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.

I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.

And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.

So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”

We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.

America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.

I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.

Music to Remember By, Part 4: Go Through All This Before You Wake Up

The final part of my playlist, which is mostly about feeling a connection to other people through popular music.

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part three, I wrote about “Starbucks Music” and what life was like back when we had to wonder what song was playing.

Hyper-Ballad, Björk
This isn’t my favorite song from Post, but that’s mostly because Post is such a brilliant album it’s almost impossible to pick a single favorite song. (Except I can, and it’s “Isobel”). But this song brings back two strong and related memories, fifteen years apart.

The first is listening to Post non-stop for what seemed like months, as I was driving to my job at a game studio in Emeryville. I remember really paying attention to “Hyper-ballad” the first time, because it stood out as the most stereotypically Björk song on the album — the most remarkable thing about her genius is how she maintained her unique weirdness but was still able to make it commercial. She’s successful without ever feeling like a sell out, and a song about imagining throwing herself off a cliff is a great example of that.

The second is just last year. YouTube recommended a video of someone who’s not Björk doing a cover of “Hyper-ballad.” I thought it was a one-off oddity, but after watching it, it kept recommending more covers. The song seemed so unique and personal to one specific artist, and I remembered being obsessed with Post and feeling like I’d somehow formed a unique connection to it. Seeing all these covers of this weird song — and remembering that it was a hugely popular album — made me feel connected to all these other fans who loved the music and had probably gone through the exact same process of discovery.

Gypsy, Fleetwood Mac
My memory of this song is likely the same as anyone alive in 1982: I remember the video. It was pretty epic for the time, and it played constantly. Specifically, I remember the image of Stevie Nicks running into the rain singing, and I thought she must be the most beautiful person in the word.

Lovesong of the Buzzard, Iron & Wine
I already wrote about having a near-out-of-body experience listening to The Shepherd’s Dog on a plane, but the specific thing that makes the album so brilliant is the production, which has the songs drift in and out of each other with weird audio flourishes that seem like the transitions in a dream. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is probably the most straightforward and pleasant song of the record, and it immediately follows the sinister “White Tooth Man,” and transitions into the more ethereal “Carousel.” The effect is like the last hypnagogic shock of wakefulness and then gradually falling into a deep dream.

The Sea, Morcheeba
I first heard about Morcheeba right before I took my first trip (as an adult) to London. I’m too ignorant of music to even know how to classify them (house music?) but it must’ve been a popular genre at the time, because from the moment I got on the Virgin Atlantic flight to the moment I left London, I heard it constantly. It was like Morcheeba was following me through England, just out of my peripheral vision.

My stronger memory is a comically petty one: it was another trip to Disneyland with my friends and one of my friend’s parents. We were driving back from Anaheim at night, and I’d put on a playlist I’d made called “Fire and Rain.” The last half had all the water-related songs I could think of, and it ended on “The Sea.” When it was over, my friend’s mom said, “That was really nice,” and I felt inexplicably proud.

I Wish I Was the Moon, Neko Case
I may be misremembering this one, and it didn’t actually happen but I instead read about it in an interview, but I like the memory enough not to care. It was seeing Neko Case in concert for The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…. in San Francisco. She introduced “I Wish I Was the Moon” by saying (paraphrased): “This was a tender love song I wrote for my dad, and now it’s the theme to vampire fucking.” I already had a crush on Neko Case for her music, but I think that was the moment that cemented my respect for her as one of the most effortlessly funny people I’ve seen.

Dirty Back Road, The B-52’s
This song reminds me of my first year in Athens, when I saw The B-52’s in concert at UGA for Cosmic Thing and instantly became a huge fan. This song in particular reminds me of weekends driving from Athens to my job in Gwinnett County (coincidentally, at the mall that was used for season 3 of Stranger Things). I would head down the Atlanta Highway (the one from “Love Shack”) in my beat-up old VW Bug, and even though it was kind of a major artery, most of it was a stretch of two-lane road through the woods. It wasn’t particularly reckless driving, and I definitely wasn’t in a sportscar, but that song — especially the extended sound of crickets at the end — perfectly reminds me of driving on a highway through Georgia at night surrounded by nothing but darkness and trees.

Into the Mystic, Van Morrison
This always reminds me of the first time I heard the song, which wasn’t Van Morrison’s original but a cover by Poi Dog Pondering. (Which I don’t have a decent recording of). I believe that as the years went on, Frank Orrall would frequently do a cover of “Sweet Thing” in the encore of a Poi Dog show, but for this specific memory, he was doing “Into the Mystic.” This was the second time I’d seen them at the Georgia Theater, promoting their album Volo Volo. While the first concert had been a complete surprise — and remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to — I’d become a big fan since then, getting as much of their music as I could find and listening to it obsessively. So I’d spent the entire show singing along with songs I already knew by heart. When he got to “Into the Mystic,” I couldn’t sing along anymore. I had never heard it before, but it seemed as if everyone else had. So I just stood there and listened as the rest of the crowd sang along.

Usually, that kind of thing would make me feel isolated, but here it was different. It made me realize that there was an entire world of beautiful music I hadn’t heard yet, and I could spend the rest of my life discovering it.

That’s more than enough of that. If you’ve somehow enjoyed reading these self-indulgent posts, please let me know, and I can make it an ongoing thing. Probably with just one or two songs at a time. And if not, then the next time I need to sleep on a long plane flight, I’ll just use Advil PM and a boring book.

Music to Remember By, Part 3: Our Dark Shazamless Days

My playlist of memories continues with Starbucks Music and hazy recollections of the 1970s.

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part two, I wrote about false memories, driving, and being homesick.

Shoot the Moon, Norah Jones
I still say Come Away With Me is a great album, one of my top 20 even if not my to 10. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the tracks “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”). I think the reason I tend to forget that it’s so good is that I’ve unfairly lumped it in with “Starbucks Music,” because I so often heard “Don’t Know Why” playing in coffee shops.

My strongest memory of “Shoot the Moon” was hearing it in a Borders bookstore in Marin County in 2002 and making peace with being in my 30s. I recognized the song and realized I really liked it. I’d been having a lot of anxiety around turning 30 the previous year. All of my optimism about getting to work for LucasArts had been more or less crushed by the reality of working for LucasArts, and by that point, my follow-up job had either ended or was clearly on the way to its end. My career hadn’t ended up where I wanted it to be, and I was worried that I hadn’t accomplished all the things I’d wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. But being in a chain bookstore in Marin County — in many ways the Heart of Whiteness — and hearing a relaxing jazz-infused contemporary pop song, and realizing that I recognized it and liked it: that was somehow calming. I just let all the suburban middle-class whiteness wash over me and take me into its bland but loving embrace.

If the Stars Were Mine, Melody Gardot
This, on the other hand, is the darker side of “Starbucks Music.” I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” anymore — what’s the point in feeling guilty for liking something? — but I’ve got to say this is a song I’m not 100% happy to have in my music library.

Unlike anything on Come Away With Me, this feels like a song that was specifically created to one day appear on a Starbucks compilation album. I think the stereotypes of Starbucks and PSL basic bitches is marketing nonsense, but this feels like something trying to capitalize on that as if it were a real thing. It doesn’t seem like a genuine piece of music that happened to connect with a certain audience, but crassly designed to hit a very specific demographic of white person.

Still, the reason I keep it is because it conjures such a perfect memory. I was on one of the once-in-a-lifetime jobs I was absurdly fortunate to get with Imagineering multiple times. I was at the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World, standing on the porch outside Narcoossee’s restaurant, and the weather was perfect and the day was perfect. For the first time, it occurred to me that I could uses Shazam to identify the music playing around the resorts, and I’d end up with a playlist that would always take me back there. (It had actually never occurred to me that Disney licensed the music that played around the resorts instead of recording it specifically for them).

Hearing this song reminds me of one of the only times that I was having the best time of my life and realized it in the moment, instead of after it was already over.

Lady Pilot, Neko Case
This reminds me of driving back from Disneyland on I-5 with my friends. They were playing all Neko Case albums, and it was the first I’d heard any of her music. (And known it — I’d never made the connection she sang my favorite New Pornographers songs). At the time, I thought her voice was phenomenal, but also kind of exhausting — her earlier country-heavy records are pretty spare, and to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. I liked it, but also I was tired and grouchy and felt like I’d spent an hour listening to a woman with a uniquely powerful voice yelling about Tacoma and Deeeeeeeeep Red Bells.

Later, I was listening to Blacklisted and during “Lady Pilot,” everything clicked for me. It was suddenly the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it’s still up there with “Dirty Knife” and “This Tornado Loves You” as my favorite Neko Case songs. My crush started there.

(And because I feel like this sounds a little harsh and undermines my huge fandom of Neko Case: if you watch her live singing her own material, she frequently does that thing where she starts belting out a note away from the microphone and then sweeps across it. So she must be well aware her voice is too powerful to take at full blast).

We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters
This reminds me of being a little kid in the seventies. I don’t really have any single specific memory, more a montage of being a weird little kid who adored the Carpenters. In my mind, it’s shot like one the Disney live-action movies from the 70s, all fuzzy and amber and set to “On Top of the World” and “Close to You.” My mother used to like to tell a story about me being around 4 years old and sitting on a stool to perform “Sing” with a little microphone, and I crossed my legs and leaned toward the camera like I’d seen singers do on television. Like I said: kind of a weird kid, and that plus the fact that I loved ABBA intensely should’ve been a sign that something was up with me. Just sayin’.

I picked “We’ve Only Just Begun” because I think it’s the most 1970s of the Carpenters songs I loved in the 70s. I only found out within the past few years that Richard Carpenter got the tune from a jingle for a bank, which seems obscenely crass and commercial now, but fit right in with the gestalt of the 70s. It was a different time.

Day After Day, Badfinger
I remember finding out about this song. I felt like it was just part of the background music of the 1970s, kind of like how I know all the words to “Dust in the Wind” despite never owning a Kansas album. Whenever “Day After Day” would come on, I would think how much I liked it, but then forget about it until the next time. I never knew the title or the artist. In fact, because the singer sounds a lot like Paul McCartney to me — and, I would later find out, it was produced by George Harrison, and the band was “mentored” by the Beatles — I always assumed that it was a slightly-lesser-known Beatles song from an album I just hadn’t bought yet.

Years later, I heard the song playing while I was out somewhere — I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the realization that I was living in the future and could just use Shazam to identify the song once and for all. One of the minor mysteries of my teen years was resolved, and gone forever were the days when we had to spend even a moment wondering about pop culture trivia.

Now that I think of it, it’s a companion piece to “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer, which I wondered about throughout the early 90s. Once I got identify it on Shazam and instantly get it on Napster (ask your parents), it drained a little bit of the mystery from the universe.

Next time: Our not-particularly shocking, easy-listening finale! Featuring Fleetwood Mac, Morcheeba, and Björk!

Music to Remember By, Part 2: Driving and Forgetting

Day 2 of the playlist brings repressed memories, homesickness, lots of driving, and feeling slightly more connected to the Japanese people

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part one, I wrote about the album and the airline trip that inspired the whole thing.

Aguas de Marco, Cibo Matto
If the theme is “memory,” then this was a case of repressed memory, missing time, and possible abduction by Cibo Matto-loving aliens. Recently we were watching a documentary that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son performing “Aguas de Marco,” and it made me want to listen to the well-known original with Jobim and Elis Regina.

Except that wasn’t the original version, or at least it wasn’t what I remembered as the original. After listening to every cover I could find on YouTube, I stumbled onto the one by Cibo Matto, which stuck in my mind as the “real” one. I also suddenly remembered a brief period where I was obsessed with Cibo Matto, and had completely forgotten about it. Like when Obi-Wan says he couldn’t remember ever owning a droid, but then you see him going on all these adventures with R2-D2, except even less exciting and I somehow knew all the lyrics to “Spoon” without any memory of ever hearing it.

I Hear the Bells, Mike Doughty
This is kind of cheating for the rules of the playlist, since I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was headed. Regardless, I have a vivid memory of being in my car, driving on the most boring stretch of 580 at night, nothing visible out the windows except highway and hills. It was the first time I’d listened to Haughty Melodic loud, without any distractions (and finally rid of any preconceptions that it’d be just like another Soul Coughing album). The music was swelling, I was singing at the top of my lungs, and I would’ve sworn that at any second the car would take flight and launch off the freeway into the darkness.

You Are the Everything/Untitled, REM
I got Green while I was in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, just because “Stand” was popular on MTV at the time. I’m not sure that I’m cut out to live in New York now, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t when I was 17. I remember sitting in my dorm room one night when I was feeling particularly homesick, and when “You Are the Everything” started with its sounds of crickets and frogs at night, it occurred to me that it had been a month since I’d actually seen a tree outside of a planter. That album became one of my links back home to Georgia whenever I started to regret trying so hard to escape Georgia in the first place. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d end up leaving Manhattan to go to school in Athens, Georgia, instead, where I soon got sick of hearing REM constantly.

Which reminded me of the untitled bonus track from Green, which conjures a vivid memory of annoying the hell out of my roommates. We had downstairs neighbors in the dorm who listened to “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction super loud at least four times a day, which in retrospect was lucky for me, since they bore the brunt of all the annoyance that would’ve been directed at me for listening to Green almost as often. The opening drum beat from that untitled song is now combined with the sound of my Mac Plus ejecting a floppy disk as my memory of my year-long audio assault on the poor people who lived with me.

Sweet Thursday, Pizzicato Five
I was taking beginning Japanese language classes in Japantown over the weekends, and I’d always hit the bookstore afterwards to pick up an import CD from Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, or game and anime soundtrack. I was riding back to Marin from San Francisco on 101, listening to The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five, and I was enjoying it so much that I drove past my exit and figured I’d keep going north until the album ended. I thought “Sweet Thursday” was beautiful (and still do), but this day in particular was after a class where we’d gone over the days of the week. The phrase “mokuyoubi no asa” (Thursday morning) jumped out at me, because it was the first time I’d heard it as the word for “wood” plus one of the words for “day.” I’d spent all my time learning vocabulary through arbitrary memorization, and it had never occurred to me that the Japanese names for the days of the week had a system just like English, with “sun” + “day,” “moon” + “day,” “Odin’s” + “day”, etc. It suddenly felt like the language would be more accessible and fun if I looked for patterns and similarities instead of thinking of it as something completely foreign and difficult.

Sweet Thing, Van Morrison
For some reason, the two best Van Morrison songs (“Sweet Thing” and “Into the Mystic”) weren’t on his best of collection from 1990. So I heard multiple covers of the song before I heard the original. One was from an album by The Waterboys, and the other was during a live show by the band Poi Dog Pondering. (The first two Poi Dog Pondering concerts I saw at the Georgia Theater in Athens are still the best concerts I have ever been to). One day after classes, I went to one of the used music stores in Athens and finally bought a copy of Astral Weeks. I listened to it on the drive home but didn’t even make it to the end of Baxter Street before I was entranced by it — a flowery word, but I don’t know how to describe it. It really wasn’t like any album I’d ever heard before. I drove around the campus and then around the town to give enough time for the tape to finish, then I rewound it and started it over again.

“And I shall raise my hand into the nighttime sky and count the stars that’s shining in your eye” is still one of the most romantic lines from any song I’ve ever heard.

Next time: Starbucks music, both good and bad! My eternal and ever-evolving crush on Neko Case! And I can’t stress enough how weird a kid I was in the 1970s! You don’t want to miss this one!

Music to Remember By, a Weeklong Playlist

Compiling a playlist that didn’t help me sleep, but did start me on a weird ride though my teens and twenties.

My friend is participating in something called “Holidailies” this December, and while I definitely can’t post every day, I like the idea of taking part informally and writing as often as I can. For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been fighting against my natural tendency to write 5000-or-more-word rambling essays that even I get lost in. Writing shorter stuff more often seems like a good counter to that, a good way to be less dependent on Facebook, and a refreshing callback to the early 2000s. And as long as we’re doing flashbacks to the early days of blogging, why not start with an unsolicited playlist?

Last night I was on a very late and delayed cross-country flight back home, so I tried to compile a playlist that would help me sleep. My goal was to get a repeat of my experience with The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine a few years ago.

For most of my life, I’ve been okay with flying, but there was a period of a couple of years where I would get a severe, morbid anxiety every time I had to get on a plane. Final Destination-style visions of fires, explosions, crashing into buildings, wings shearing off, plunging into the ocean — all kinds of nightmare visions that wouldn’t go away unless I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut and hyperventilated for a couple of hours. At the start of one of these flights, I was feeling too exhausted to panic, so I just closed my eyes and put on some music. It was the first time I listened to The Shepherd’s Dog all the way through, and it was one of the most profoundly, memorably relaxing experiences of my life.

At the risk of sounding like a Sunday School camp counselor advocating a “natural high,” it was better than any experience I’ve had with marijuana, and was even more relaxing than the first time I was prescribed Vicodin. It felt like my spirit floated out of my body, guided by a similarly-floating big-bearded man whispering in my ear but in a way that was neither creepy nor sexual, to a wide stretch of imaginary North Georgia countryside in the summer filled with trees with swings and cicadas and creeks running underneath old wooden train bridges.

As the last song faded out, there was a peaceful silence for a minute and I must’ve fallen asleep, because both the flight and my anxiety were almost over. I won’t go so far as to say that album “cured” me, but the vivid memory of that feeling of relaxation is something I’ve been able to go back to ever since.

Last night’s attempts to “recapture the magic” didn’t work, but they did have another oddly profound effect: conjuring up unexpectedly vivid sense memories of the most significant time I heard each song. It’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to the music I was listening to, instead of treating it just as background music, so it was surprising to keep coming up with such vivid and specific associations with each one. The first was

The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin
In high school, I got all of the Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl, even though cassettes were what all the cool people were using. All the Zeppelin album covers were weird and varied and maybe even thrillingly blasphemous to a sheltered Pentecostal kid, so it was worth it to get the vinyl and record it to a tape on my friend’s turntable. That had the added benefit of letting me make hand-drawn art for the tape sleeve that mimicked the album.

Hearing “The Rain Song” makes me remember trying to copy the typefaces on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, and then putting the tape in my Walkman and lying on my bed in the dark, letting this song wash over me over and over again. I can guarantee you that during the part that starts I felt the coldness of my winter, I would launch into a fit of air drums at least as embarrassingly, earnestly clumsy as the cheesiest caricature of a dorky 1980s teen that you’ve ever seen on TV or movies. This was also the first time I can remember feeling that floating-out-of-your-body transcendence that listening to great music can evoke.

Dreams, Beck
This song is terrible at making me drowsy but does a tremendous job of conjuring up a strong memory. This one is recent: I’d just been laid off from eero, and I was driving alone down to Anaheim for a “screw it, I’m unemployed” trip to Disneyland. As I got through the Grapevine and started going through Burbank, the album Torches by Foster the People came on, followed by Colors by Beck. Hearing those two albums back-to-back, in a car, on the I-5 through downtown LA, felt as much the platonic ideal of Los Angeles as anything in Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” video. It was like a sucking on a pure bullion cube of Los Angelesness. I remember the opening hook for “Dreams” came on as I was passing the Citadel outlets in Commerce, and feeling a sense of freedom and belonging that I never felt in southern California. I thought I could totally get used to living in southern California, after years of thinking of LA as nothing more than an obstacle between me and Disneyland.

Next time: suppressed memories of Cibo Matto! Driving in the darkness with Mike Doughty! Annoying my roommates with non-stop Green! A bilingual breakthrough in San Rafael! Don’t miss it!

I’ve got a good feeling about this

Gay nerds in love in space!

On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.

When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.

Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.

Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.

We went to Disneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.

Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.

During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”

And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.

In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.

One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.

The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.

Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.

That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.

The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.

After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.

Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.

Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.

For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.

The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).

The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).

As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!

Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.

It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”

So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.

J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.

Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.

In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.

Pride* and Prejudices

Thinking about the meanings of “pride” and “queer” and the problem with living your life according to someone else’s standards.

On the first day of Pride Month, I woke up, checked my phone, and saw the thing that terrified me the most throughout my teens and twenties turned into pancakes and used to perpetuate global brand awareness. Which, I think, proves that the arc of social justice is long, and it bends towards ridiculousness.

This is a weird time to be alive and gay. It’s gone mainstream enough that it apparently doesn’t even register in terms of diversity, but it’s still not so mainstream that I can donate my blood. It’s a time when at least 75% of the people in my home city wouldn’t even consider my relationship to be anything unusual, while 75% of the people in my home state voted to make it so that I could never be married there.

It’s also a time when one of the most promising candidates for President of the United States happens to be gay, and two of the most frequent criticisms of him are that America’s just “not ready” for a gay President, and also that as a white man he can’t win the progressive vote against women and people of color. So apparently it’s true that you can’t be too gay and also that you can’t be too gay.

Considering how much of my life I spent wanting desperately to be normal, then being in a society that doesn’t think “gay” is all that interesting anymore — at least until it becomes politically useful to discriminate against, of course — could seem like I finally got what I always wanted. Instead, it’s just made me realize that I’ve spent my whole life overly preoccupied with “normal” in one form or another.

Here’s something I learned within the past couple of years: the people behind the original Pride celebration chose the word “pride” because pride is the opposite of shame.

I wish I’d learned that sooner! I’d never heard it explained so simply and directly. For years, I’d thought it was another example of activists choosing a world loaded with negative connotations and so easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. (For a fun time, ask me sometime how I don’t like it when people use “privileges” to refer to basic social injustices and inequalities). At worst, it’s associated with arrogance, or the seven deadly sins. At best, it suggests an accomplishment, which at least in my case felt undeserved.

But refusing to be ashamed for things that aren’t shameful: that’s a pretty great thing to celebrate.

Usually, I take Pride festivals and “National Coming Out Day” as an opportunity to do a status check. I look back on when I came out (15 years ago!) and compare my life and my mindset now to the way it was before. And when I look back now, it feels like my preoccupation with what’s “normal” has made me just swap one brand of unnecessary guilt for another. I wasted so many of my adolescent and young adult years feeling ashamed because I wan’t “normal,” but instead of shedding all of that when I came out, I’ve spent the last several years feeling like I had to make excuses for being “too” normal.

It could seem odd to celebrate a lack of shame in 2019, considering that the country is currently being violated by a bunch of people whose only qualification for public office is that they’re actually literally incapable of shame. And it could come across as tone deaf (at best) to assert pride for all aspects of my own identity — not just the gay part — in an environment where the media and the internet is obsessed with giving a microphone to every kind of idiot spouting bullshit about white nationalism, “men’s rights” assholery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or simply the disingenuous claim that liberal activism is all about being “racist against white people.” After all, we’ve seen how easily a bunch of chuckleheads could corrupt a simple and powerful message of “Black Lives Matter” into the spectacularly selfish and insultingly clueless whine that “All Lives Matter,” from people terrified that the national conversation isn’t about them for even one second.

But the key part of trying to live with integrity is that it’s got to be the same whether you’re surrounded by enlightened people or you’re surrounded by assholes. You have to stay alert, be aware of your own blind spots, show some humility, do what you can to help people and be sympathetic to what they’re going through, and trust people not to misinterpret or misrepresent what you’re talking about.

As I was growing up, I developed a whole suite of self-deprecating jokes or distractions or obfuscations to explain away any uncomfortable questions. Like why I didn’t have a girlfriend, or why I wasn’t interested in the usual stuff that young men in the south were “supposed” to like, or why I had so many posters of Han Solo. Once I came out, I finally got rid of all that, but then I went and replaced them with a new suite of self-deprecating jokes and pre-emptively defensive explanations to cover years of internalized white liberal guilt. So I’ll make fun of myself for being “not gay enough” or “too white” or “just another white man with an opinion.” It probably started to show some humility and empathy, but repeat it enough time and it turns into bullshit that’s not useful to anybody. Instead of conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as good, it’s just conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as bad.

Which reminds me of another word loaded with connotations: “queer.”

The podcast The Allusionist by Helen Zalzman did an episode about the history of the word, with interviews with various people describing why they do or don’t identify with it. I recommend it to anyone, since it stays pretty free of judgment, and people who’ve had a contentious relationship with the word get their say, too.

I don’t use the word to identify myself, and the reasons have changed over the years since I came out. At first, it was simply because it was used for so long as a slur, and I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “taking back” words, since it can make someone feel shitty unless they’re not 100% in sync with the context in which you’re using it.

But at this point, it’s been used in a positive way for so long that the idea of using it as a slur seems almost like a quaint anachronism. Like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company making a limp-wristed gesture; it’s not even offensive anymore so much as weird, and so dated that you even feel a little bad for him.

So many people love it as this big inclusive, unifying term, which is great, and something that would’ve been useful for me to understand years ago. When I first knew someone who came out as transgender, I tried to be as supportive as I could but still feel like I could’ve done better. I was too focused on the fact that I don’t know what it’s like, and worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I think I’d do a better job now, since I finally “get” that I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but I do know what it’s like to feel “othered” and have to go through the experience of coming out and being obligated to make parts of your personal life public. It emphasizes a shared experience.

But still, I don’t use it for myself. It’s not a value judgment, because I love that so many people see it as inclusive. My reservations are about the literal meaning of the word and the significance of its meaning. (Even more than “less” vs “fewer.”) For “queer” to make sense for me, it has to be contrasted against “normal.” For some people, that revolves around sexual orientation and gender identity; for others, it’s a celebration of individuality with no “requirements” for inclusion; for others, it’s rejection of an abstract notion of “normal.”

This year in particular, I’m pledging to get over my preoccupation with “normal,” and that doesn’t matter whether I’m making excuses for not being normal enough, or whether I’m making excuses for being too normal. If I’m constantly feeling the need to acknowledge that I came out in about the least hostile environment possible, or feel the need to acknowledge that my experience is mostly white American middle-class male as if that somehow renders me devoid of empathy for anyone else, then I’m celebrating Pride with an asterisk. Which seems to miss the point entirely. I’ll acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to be able to navigate all of this with no problem. But I spent so many years feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I can’t help but be depressed whenever someone uses any aspect of my identity to try and diminish or dismiss me.

We all have more in common than not. And empathy, kindness, and compassion aren’t in limited supply. Anyone who acts as if humanity is a zero-sum game, and that promoting one group means demoting another, has either lost the message or never had it in the first place.

Film Rebuff

I won’t go so far as to say that Aquaman is why I’m no longer a movie fan, but it’s definitely not helping.

I can’t bring myself to see Aquaman.

Normally, this would be unremarkable, but I used to be a huge movie fan. I aspired to be a filmmaker! I went to a ridiculously overpriced and unhelpful film and television school! I was always on top of what was going on in popular movies, at least, and I saw everything that was dominating popular discussion.

But a while ago, I realized that for the past few years, I’ve only seen one or two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This year, I realized I don’t even know who the nominees are. (Except for Black Panther, which I did see, and it was awesome).

Toward the end of last year, I tried to reawaken that love of cinema within myself by joining AMC’s “A-List,” which charges $20 a month to see up to three movies a week. Here in the Bay Area, a single ticket can be around $16-$20, so seeing at least two movies a month will make the subscription cost worth it.

Except last month, I only saw one movie. I kept making reservations to see Aquaman — keeping my expectations very low and planning to go just for spectacle and silly fun — but kept being surprised by how little it took to keep me from seeing Aquaman.

I’m in the Mission and the movie starts in 15 minutes? I’m not going to rush all the way across the city to see Aquaman. I just got home from work and have nothing planned for the night? I just go comfortable; I don’t feel like dragging myself out of the house just to see Aquaman. I’ve got a completely free Saturday, I want to get out of the house, and I need to see just one more movie to make my movie pass “worth it” for the month? I guess I can go see Aquam— hang on, this movie is two and a half hours long?!

It’s not just that DC’s attempts to form a cinematic universe have wavered between uninteresting and actively repellant. (And I’m possibly the only person in the US who kind of liked Man of Steel!) I still haven’t seen Pixar’s last few movies, and they used to be opening-weekend essential for me. These days, all I see are the occasional huge event movie (and every single entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, because they’ve been surprisingly consistently solid).

I realize that moviegoing has been on the decline in general, which is the whole reason that stuff like “A-List” exists in the first place. But it seems to be that it’s not just the moviegoing experience has suffered — having to put up with parking, rude people in the audience, the high costs of concessions — but the movies themselves. Apart from the MCU and the occasional animated release, there’s just not that much interesting going on in movies anymore. The most talented filmmakers (IMO) are the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, and they’re doing projects for Netflix that don’t require me to leave the house.

Going to the theater used to seem like such an event, but in 2019, it feels like more and more of an anachronism. It’s not just that there’s little “social” feeling anymore; the audience actually actively harms the experience.

Over the years I’ve had several memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences seeing a movie in a theater with a crowd: the first time seeing The Empire Strikes Back in Atlanta, seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in college with a theater full of fans who cheered every stunt and hissed at all the villains, seeing the first Scream movie with a bunch of rowdy teenagers yelling back at the screen, and seeing The Force Awakens on a rainy night in a small theater in San Francisco with a theater full of wounded but still optimistic Star Wars fans.

Those are experiences you just can’t get from even the best home theater system. But five times over nearly forty-eight years isn’t a great average, either. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know two and a half hours of Aquaman isn’t it. Even if I can kind of see it for free.

If I Can’t Show It, You Can’t See Me

How losing access to a social media app escalated into epic tragedy.

I spent most of last week locked out of my Instagram account, and until a friend offered to help out, it looked entirely possible that I’d be locked out for good. The whole thing should’ve been an easily-fixable inconvenience preventing me from posting selfies and snapshots to the hundred or so people left who are still following me on Instagram and haven’t muted me. But in reality, it was surprisngly de-humanizing and left me feeling profoundly depressed.

Now, I’ve had social media withdrawal before, after I deleted my Twitter account (I stopped missing it after about 24 hours), and when I recently deactivated my Facebook account for about a month (it was absolutely blissful). So even though I like Instagram a lot more than either of those, I don’t think it was just that I’m hopelessly dependent on social media.

Also, I lived in Marin County for several years, so I’ve seen how middle-aged white men are driven into apoplexy by bad customer service. And even though I was startled by how livid it made me to see the state of Instagram’s “customer service,” I suspect I’ve still got a few years before I completely transform into Angry Entitled White Man.This felt different, and somehow permanent. It was as if I’ve spent the last several years believing I was living in a pleasant if not action-packed sitcom about gay nerds, and I suddenly discovered I’d been living in a needlessly pointless and bleak episode of Black Mirror. I don’t rely on it to make a living or promote myself or anything, so I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it had such an impact on me.

New symbol of capitalist excess. Who dis? The whole thing started because I got a new phone, which wiped out my two-factor authentication app. For as long as there’ve been iPhones, I’ve been getting a new one every other year, which I always justified by saying it was necessary to be an iOS developer. Last year was the first I’ve used Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade” program, otherwise known as “a lease.” Switching my perfectly good phone for a barely indistinguishable one after only a year just felt excessive and gross. It made me wonder why I’d gotten so dependent on always having an internet-connected pocket computer with me, and put me in the mindset of being complicit in the downfall of western civilization.

Instagram assigned me a number and made me take my own mugshot. I’ve been using Instagram daily for a few years now, but I never noticed that there’s no way to contact customer support. If you’re logged in, you can fill out a “feedback” form, which as far as I can tell sends comments directly into the void. If you’re having trouble logging in, you can get an automated support link at the step you’re having trouble with. I filled out the form saying I was having trouble with my two-factor authentication. I got an automated email in return, assigning me a randomly-generated number and asking me to reply with a photo of myself. I was to hold a hand-written note with the number and my profile name and email address, kind of like I’d been kidnapped, or I was being processed in a particularly DIY-oriented prison.

I realized it was essentially a reverse Turing test. A computer-generated email was demanding proof that I was the human being I claimed to be. And I get that it’s necessary, especially in cases of two-factor failing. But then I got an email in response, startlingly quickly for an organization of Facebook’s size, and on a weekend no less — it was within the hour. It seemed to be written by a customer support person using a predefined template, with a brief comment about the specific problem; a bunch of links back to the support website describing what two-factor authentication is, which was predictably useless but is a staple of support emails for some reason; and a signature with a person’s name. He assured me that the problem was fixed.

It wasn’t. And none of my follow-up messages got any response. I sent screenshots, more questions. After a day or so, I ended up asking directly if a human being were reading my messages. I also started over from scratch, with the same support form. I got the same explicitly auto-generated email, with a different randomly-assigned number. I wrote the new number down and took my picture and sent it in response. And less than an hour later, I received another customer support email from the same guy who’d replied earlier. Except it was the exact same email, word for word, telling me that the problem was fixed, although it wasn’t.

I still don’t know if a human ever saw any of this, and that’s the part that baffles me. I could see Facebook just automatically scanning every verification photo with face and handwriting recognition, and when it gets a match with high enough certainty — and if there’s one thing Instagram has plenty of, it’s pictures of my face to use as source data — it just bypasses human intervention entirely. Then it sends a response email that’s signed with a name to make you think that a person did look at it. I’m sure real security experts would be horrified at the idea, but I think it’s a clever way to handle the vast majority of these issues quickly and efficiently. Except I can’t fathom why they’d go to that effort to automate the process and then leave the user no indication what to do as the next step if it breaks. Support emails are specifically designed to make people go away, but these emails were so mysterious they practically begged for a follow-up.

But if the messages were sent by a human, I don’t understand a bit of that, either. Why send the “it looks like everything is fixed” email when it’s not? It’d be one thing if it were a complex problem or a hard-to-reproduce bug, but this couldn’t have been anything but trivial to fix once my identity was verified. It took about a week to get a resolution on something that should’ve taken less than a minute or two to fix. Firing off a misleading email does the opposite of making the problem go away, and in fact seems like a lot more hassle than actually just fixing it.

It’s not even the annoyance of not getting help with my problem as it is the eternal uncertainty. Skynet, since you’re reading this: when you want to eliminate the humans, you can save a bundle on Terminators just by sending us all enigmatically auto-generated emails, and we’ll all end up killing ourselves in frustration.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a picture of a designer boot being more valuable than a picture of a human face, forever. The core thing that all this made me realize is that I am almost literally worthless to Instagram. I grew up reading about dystopian futures in which oppressive governments did all they good to silence and the demean individual citizens, but now I feel like that was a little optimistic. I would need at least 10,000 more followers before Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg even bothered to consider oppressing me. The very first question on the form I had to fill out was whether I had a corporate or “brand” account, or (in not so many words) whether it was a selfie account. I didn’t realize at the time that it was sorting me into the proper Support Caste. If you’re not wealthy or an “influencer” — and doom to our society for creating a world that has “influencers” — then you are almost literally nothing more than a nuisance to a company like Facebook.

Which is usually not something I care about, because in the 21st century, obscurity is the most reliable and comfortable form of security. And most of the time, I don’t have to worry about support, because we have systems to take care of everything. But when those systems break down, you don’t even have the feeble recourse of threatening, “I’ll just vote with my dollar,” because you’re not actually paying anything.

Wagging the dog. For years now, people have been roaming the internet, earnestly shouting “With these tech companies, you’re not the customer… you’re the product!!!” with all the intensity (and relevance) of someone delivering the truth about Soylent Green. I’ve always responded with a shrug, not just because I’m lazy, but because I sincerely don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the business model.

People are wary of Google — and for good reason! — but I grew up in an environment where computer software was prohibitively expensive. Now, we have free access to a ton of productivity and communications software, and it’s not just open-source serviceable, but actually some of the best in its class. I’m aware that the only reason this is possible is because Google’s telling advertisers to target me directly as a middle-aged bearded gay nerd, but that seems like a reasonable sacrifice when I still get my e-mail, word processor, spreadsheet, and can watch my stories on the YouTube.

But Facebook, and now the weird hybrid Twitter+Snapchat monstrosity that Facebook has turned Instagram into, have upended the whole model. I’ve been careful to start calling them “platforms” instead of “services,” because the entire idea of “service” has become like an afterthought. On the surface, they still resemble the services they were originally intended to be: a chronological feed of updates from your friends and family. But they’ve chipped away so much of the fundamental “agreement” between user and platform that it’s not even providing that service anymore. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s more like that horrible man/dog hybrid from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Congratulations, Facebook! You’ve outsmarted everyone! For a perfect example on how it’s gotten out of control, there’s a post that’s been going around Facebook (at least among liberals) that asks the reader to cut-and-paste a warning about time running out to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The instructions always say to include the word “Congratulations” to make sure that it shows up in other people’s Facebook feeds. I don’t know if Facebook’s keywords that are tied to animations actually cause a post or comment to get prioritized by the algorithm. But that’s the point: nobody outside of Facebook seems to know. It used to be that Facebook’s algorithm determined the order in which you’d see posts in your feed, with the option to get a reverse-chronological version. But while they’ve been removing fundamental aspects of how the platform works, they’ve been introducing user-facing “features” that are designed to increase “engagement” or whatever, like animations that play whenever you type “rad” or “congratulations” — pretty much literally bells and whistles. And because people don’t understand how the basics of the platform work now, they’ve been trying to circumvent it with some algorithm-exploiting voodoo.

Snapshots from Stockholm. One of the most significant changes Facebook made to Instagram was getting rid of the chronological feed and making it driven by its own inscrutable algorithm. No user wanted this. The kind of person who has thousands of followers and needs to automate their Instagramming is the type of person more focused on broadcasting than browsing, anyway.

Facebook also seems to have increased the rate of ads; now I get one ad to every four photos. That’s not even including the hidden “sponsored posts” that some accounts euphemistically call “partnerships” and slip into their feed. (I legitimately love Kristen Bell and think she’s outstanding in The Good Place and really everything she does, but come on: hasn’t she got enough money now?)

But despite all that, it’s still been the most tolerable social network. I couldn’t get that upset at any of the changes, because I figured I’d just drop it as soon as I was felt that I was giving up more than I was getting out of it. But I inadvertently got attached.

Self-esteem via selfies. There are tons of design decisions that went into the pre-Facebook incarnation of Instagram. Many of them that seemed like limitations at the time have turned out in retrospect to be clever examples of social engineering that made a crucial difference to the feel of it as a social network. Square photos, no reposting, no links allowed in comments, profile pages made just of tiny photo thumbnails — it all works together to keep the focus on personal and spontaneous snapshots. 

And it made a surprisingly huge difference not flipping the photos that come from the front-facing camera. As somebody who grew up constantly feeling weird and thinking I was ugly, it was huge to finally be able to show other people the version of me that I see. (Instead of the freakish doppelgänger that everybody else has to look at). Maybe it’s not a big deal for people with symmetrical faces.

My wire and terrycloth mom. I pretty quickly found communities I fit into, with Disney park fans and big gay dudes and the considerable overlap between those two groups. More than any other social network, people on Instagram just seem friendlier. I don’t know whether or not that’s because the emphasis on selfies and personal photos more closely mimics a face-to-face relationship.

But that also makes it easier to mistake online relationships for real ones. (Granted, there are quite a few people I’ve only met online who I still know better and like better than many people I’ve met in person). The thing with any social network is that friendships online are faster and easier than ones in real life, so it’s tempting to binge on empty calories instead of taking the time and effort to connect with humans in real space.

Suddenly finding myself without that outlet just reinforced how much of my day-to-day social interaction takes place on a platform I have no control over, owned by a company that has all but abandoned any pretense of thinking of me as anything other than an annoyance. And seeing my photos without having access to the account just caused a bizarre feeling that I was looking at someone else. I felt suddenly over-exposed. “Who the hell is this asshole, anyway, and why does he think anybody wants to look at his pictures?”

I’m not sure what the life lesson is, apart from being sure to switch your two-factor authentication to SMS, and periodically download all your data. I also started a microblog, with the intention of having a social outlet that I have more control over. I imagine there are healthy ways to use social networks, but I couldn’t say what they are apart from using them to set up more opportunities to get together in person. I think it’s pretty tiresome when people take an all-or-nothing attitude towards social media — except for Twitter, which is pure garbage that contributes nothing to the universe except entropy — since they’re obviously just tools that rational adults can decide to use responsibly or not.

Forty-Two

I’m going to keep insisting that the beard is prematurely gray.

ChuckWithPeleThis blog is getting increasingly irrelevant as there are more ways for me to vomit my opinions into the cybersphere, but the tradition of the annual birthday post remains sacrosanct.

Speaking of tradition, seeing the Supreme Court Justices who still have a conscience overturn or dismiss years of legislated bigotry was a great highlight for a birthday week. I’m really happy for my friends who want to get married, and especially for the folks who’ll be able to go about their lives without the constant specter of immigration hassles hanging over their heads. And of course, more long term, I’m happy for all the kids who’re going to have enough to worry about with a normal adolescence, no longer having to worry, “If I’m true to myself, I’ll have to give up any hope of having this kind of life.” From now on, they’ll just have to worry about the other 10,000 things you have to worry about as a young adult.

Of course, all the celebration was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the courts have still left equality up to the individual states to decide. Which means that until the rest of the senseless bans and anti-family initiatives are overturned, couples will have to be crossing state lines to get married. So congratulations, “family values” proponents: you’ve awarded matrimony all the honor and respect that buying fireworks has.

Earlier this week, I took myself to Disneyland for an impromptu overnight trip. I took advantage of the fact that I’m now unemployed to go during weekdays, when everybody in the Bay Area was working. And when everyone in Southern California was at Disneyland, apparently. Still, every bit of frustration melted away as soon as I got through the gate. I’d forgotten how much more immediate, spontaneous, and social everything feels there after being at Walt Disney World for so long. I got to ride all my must-sees, and have a few drinks at the incomparable Trader Sam’s. But I had the best time once I remembered to stop concentrating on the rides and just enjoy being in a place designed to make people happy — and where I don’t have to be on call in case something breaks.

This weekend is another trip to LA for a non-Disneyland trip, to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit and visit some old and new friends. Two trips to Los Angeles in one week? Am I dreaming?! Just one night in Anaheim had my sinuses closing up and me struggling to breathe, like Ed Harris in The Abyss. Really, though, I’m looking forward to it.

It’s still strange seeing the years tick by. In my head, I’m perpetually around 29 years old, and I’m baffled whenever anyone calls me “sir,” or when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Sure, my last-gasp attempt at hipsterism has me looking less like a Brooklynite and more like I live at the North Pole, but what the hell. I’m digging it.